Training your dog starts with knowing the most important basic behaviors to teach him. The second part of this article looks why “leave it” and “heel” top the list.

When training your dog, how do you know what are most important things to teach him? This two-part article looks at the top four basic behaviors every dog should know – stay, come, leave it, and heel – and why they’re so crucial. In Part I (Feb-Mar 2017), we focused on “stay” and “come”. In this issue, we’re highlighting “leave it” and “heel”.

1. “Leave it”

Teaching a rock-solid, bombproof “leave it” is one of the most – if not the most – important basic behaviors you can teach your dog. “Leave it” means “Do not approach, touch or eat whatever it is you’re sniffing or looking at.” This includes everything from spilled medication to skunks, snakes, horse poop, and much more.

A reliable “leave it” can be life-saving. Recently, my friend Kelly was watching television with her dog Hunter when Hunter suddenly lifted her head and stared intently across the room. Kelly noticed Hunter’s frozen gaze and got up to investigate. She saw something move and found that a scorpion had somehow found its way into the house. Hunter had been taught to “leave it” so she stayed put. Kelly dealt with the intruder and all was well. It could have been a very different scenario – including painful stings and an emergency trip to the vet – if Hunter hadn’t been trained.

There are several step-by-step methods you can use to shape a reliable “leave it” (detailed videos can be viewed at originaldogwhisperer.com). Just as with other basic behaviors, you would start in a non-distracting environment and gradually progress, over time, to more and more reliability. Of course all methods are force-free and reward-based. And there is no such thing as 100% reliability with any dog…or human! So the key to keeping everyone safe is always using good old common sense, a watchful eye and maintaining the safest environment possible with prevention and management.

As you’ll see in the videos, the methodology for teaching “leave it” is the same for all basic behaviors:

  1. Teach the behavior.
  2. Label the behavior.
  3. Gradually add distractions including other objects and greater distances, and for longer periods of time.

For example, Hunter was first taught to leave a stationary piece of chicken, then to leave a piece of chicken that was dropped or thrown. She was then taught to walk around food without touching it, and then to leave other objects like glasses, the TV remote, a stuffed toy like a skunk, stuffed animals in motion (by tying a string to it and making it move), and so on until the behavior became generalized.

2. Heel (and loose-leash walking)

Loose-leash walking has two components:

  1. Formal heeling, which means having your dog in a window of space by your side next to you.
  2. Less formal loose-leash walking, where your dog can be in front of or behind you, but without a taut leash.

Heeling is used in situations where more control is necessary and your dog knows to pay strict attention to you. This can include when you’re walking in public, like on city sidewalks, while walking across the street, while walking past a house where dogs are barking behind a fence, or at any time your dog seems nervous.

I use two methods to teach a dog to heel.

Method 1: “There you are!” Sometimes also known as free or spontaneous heeling

  • To start, get a bunch of $10,000 treats like chicken, cheese, etc.
  • Practice in the house and/or a fenced-in yard.
  • Have your dog off leash or use a 20’ leash for added safety.

Simply start meandering around the yard (or your living room if it’s big enough) and pay no attention to your dog. To make it fun, I start singing while I meander. Your dog will eventually come up to you. The moment he is by your side, enthusiastically exclaim “there you are!” and quickly stick a treat in his mouth. If you’re using a clicker, you would click the moment he’s by your side, and treat.

Then meander away and do the same thing. As soon as your dog catches up to you and is again by your side, repeat the “there you are!” and treat.

As you continue, you’ll see your dog hanging out by your side for longer periods. When this happens, continue to praise and treat, but gradually increase the intervals between treats. This is a great foundation for the next step, which is teaching and labeling the behavior.

Method 2: Structured heeling

Before we begin, I strongly recommend walking dogs on a harness rather than connecting the leash to the collar. For dogs who are really strong pullers, I recommend using an anti-pulling, front-ring harness, designed to give you more control and help avoid any unintentional jerks on your dog’s neck.

That being said, I also strongly recommend attaching a secondary clip that connects from the collar to the harness. This does two things: it keeps the harness in place on the chest and is an added protection in case the harness gets loose and the dog backs out of it.

Step one

Have your dog by your side in a non-distracting environment. With your hands on your chest, say “heel”, and using the hand closest to your dog, stick a treat in her mouth. Do not walk forward while you do this. Stay in place and repeat five to ten times.

Step two

You’ll soon see your dog looking up at you, anticipating a treat. At this point, begin to walk and treat at the same time. As you walk, say “heel” and simultaneously put a treat in your dog’s mouth as before. Bring your hand back to your chest each time. Walk ten to 20 steps.

Step three

With your dog by your side, keep your hands on your chest, say “heel” once, and begin walking. Take four or five steps, continually praising your dog, then stop and say “sit”. When your dog sits, enthusiastically praise and treat her.

Begin again, and each time gradually add more steps before stopping and asking your dog to sit. Remember, you’re not continuously saying “heel” and treating, you’re only using praise.

If you practice this heeling exercise and add the distance of one house-length each day, you’ll be around the block in a month or two with your dog remaining in position. Then it’s just a matter of gradually adding more and more distractions, turns, changes in speed, and so on.

But here’s the secret: the heeling exercise is just like the stay exercise in that it’s important to have a clear beginning and end to the behavior. So you might start by saying “ready”, practice the heeling exercise for a few minutes, then release with “okay!” or “you’re free!” Then repeat later in the day.

One of the easiest ways to wean your dog off training treats is to finish the exercise by giving your dog a “life reward”, like the freedom to go sniff a tree or, if you’re in a secure field, throwing a ball or allowing her to say hello to someone or another dog.

Walk without pulling

Walk without pulling means just what it says. While the dog is on a leash, he can go ahead of you, behind you, or to your side – but he immediately returns to you the instant he feels the slightest tension on the leash. To teach your dog to walk without pulling, we use a combination of three methods. They all work fine by themselves but your progress can be greatly enhanced if you use all of them. They are all powerful communications that say to you dog: “Stay by my side (or close to it) without pulling, and you’ll be forever free to walk with me wherever I go.”

  1. The start/stop method

Have you ever see a dog straining on his leash, pulling his human along behind him? The person has inadvertently taught the dog that the freedom to go forward is actually a reward for pulling. This is the exact opposite of what you want your dog to do. You want to teach him that the freedom to move forward is a reward for keeping a slack leash. Whenever your dog pulls, creating a taut leash, stop in your tracks. Your dog will sniff for a while and eventually wonder what’s going on. When he turns his head to look at you, you’ll feel the leash slacken and the muscle tension decrease. Start walking forward again.

This gives him the freedom to explore again. Now your dog is learning that a taut leash (muscle tension) means stop and a loose leash (relaxed tension) means go.

Note that there’s a critical juncture you must be aware of to make this method work. Within the first ten-minute session, your dog will figure it out and you have to be aware of his recognition. Here’s what will happen. Let’s say you’ve done a dozen or so stop-and-gos. There will now come a point where your dog will back up or relax his shoulders as soon as he feels the leash go taut. This will happen so fast you won’t have a chance to come to a complete stop. This is the critical point at which you effusively praise and treat your dog. Why? Because he has just figured out that he can keep you moving if he backs up a little, so his action stops the pressure. That’s the whole point of the method. He thinks it’s his idea.

If you don’t acknowledge the split second this happens, he’ll say, “Well, now I’m confused,” and go back to pulling. This is a tactile, not a visual signal. I tell students to close their eyes and walk a few steps so they can feel the loosening tension rather that look for it.

  1. The “wait for me” method

Using the first method, you continued to walk while the leash was loose. But you may also find that your dog stays in place and waits for you to catch up. If that happens, you can give him an additional reward for being close to you.

To explain, let’s say you are practicing the start/stop method. The leash goes taut, and you immediately stop. When the leash tension slackens, because your dog turns her head to look at you, you praise her and immediately start walking again. (Tight means stop; loose means go.) But let’s say that instead of pulling again when you begin walking, your dog waits for you to catch up. Now she’s by your side. When that happens, you immediately praise and treat her for being in that position. She will quickly learn that she can not only keep you walking as long as she keeps the leash loose ; she will also figure out that if she’s by your side, she’ll get an additional bonus of food treats. It’s very similar to the spontaneous heeling method.

To summarize, you’ll be practicing the start/stop method but adding rewards if your dog waits for you to catch up.

  1. The reversal method

You’ll again practice the start/stop method but will add another twist. Say your dog stops to sniff something and you walk ahead. As he catches up to you, and before he can pass you, quickly lure him with a treat and turn around and walk the other way. Once again he’ll be by your side so immediately release the treat. As you walk, if he stays in heel position, continue to praise and treat him.

This method works because dogs really don’t like to retrace familiar ground as much as they like to explore new territory. He learns he can keep you going forward if he doesn’t walk ahead of you. He also learns that he intermittently gets treats if he stays by your side.

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